Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival - Part 1 "The Begining"

Yesterday, 28 July, we returned home from a two day stay in Ubon Ratchathani to attend the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival.

Ubon Ratchathani is a six hour drive southeast of our home in Udonthani.  During the Vietnam or American, depending upon your perspective, War, Ubon like Udon was a large United States Air Force base.  Just as in Udon, the former air base is now the municipal airport.  The area around Ubon is agricultural and the city is a financial, educational, and market center for the surrounding villages.

Ubon is famous for their Candle Festival.  The Candle Festival is associated with the start of Buddhist Lent season.  On Asarnha Puja Day, the day of the full moon during the eighth lunar month (July since according to the original Thai calendar the first lunar month is December), there is a large merit making ritual that commemorates Buddha's first sermons. The merit making ritual involves offering candles to the Monks at local Wats and listening to sermons related to Buddha's teachings.

This year, Asarnha Puja Day occurred on July 26 with the start of Buddhist Lent, Wan Kao Pansa (the first day of the waning moon of the eighth month of the lunar calendar being July 27th.  Buddhist Lent?  Yes, there is a Lenten period that runs for 90 days.  The practise of Lent, "phansa", goes back to Lord Buddha's time.  To prevent Monks from inadvertently trampling freshly planted rice seedlings or harming insects in the thick mud created by the heavy rains of the rainy season in the months from July to October, Buddha required his disciples to remain in their monasteries during that period of time.  They were prohibited from spending the night in any temple but their designated one.  During the 90 day period referred to as "Khao Phansa" (rains retreat), the Monks do not make pilgrimages so they have time to study scriptures.  In the time before electricity, the Monks studied scriptures by candlelight.  For the start of Kao Phansa, Wan Kao Phansa, villagers would make offerings of candles to the Monks to assist them in their study of the scriptures.  Other common household items such as matches, soap, wash cloths, towels, and tooth paste are also offered to the Monks to provide for their needs during their 90 day retreat.  Offering items on Wan Kao Phansa is more beneficial for the donor than on other days.  The donors lives will be blessed with  happiness, wisdom, and health.

One of the large floats during Wan Kao Phansa night procession
The tradition of having a festival along with ornate candle offerings in Ubon started in the early 20th century.  The governor at the time was concerned about the number of deaths as well as injuries that were happening during the traditional rocket festival at this time.  The villagers were also getting injured in many alcohol fueled fights.  The Governor, who was a Prince, ordered an end to the rocket festival and the start of a candle festival instead where candles would be presented to the Monks.

For the first festivals, communities would gather bees wax and create fancy candles.  The fancy candle would be placed in a sedan chair, a chair that has long poles extending from it in order that it can be carried upon the shoulders of porters.  The candles were then paraded to the Town Hall where the Prince would award prizes to the communities that made the most  beautiful candles.

The competition for awards from the Prince over time caused an escalation in both the size and elaborate designs associated with the candles.  Candles increased from bamboo diameter size to banana stalk diameter size to today's large panoramas.  Candles evolved from simple smooth surface to surfaces decorated with papers and fabrics to today's extremely intricate carvings.  Today different colored waxes are entering into the competition for recognition.  The process continues to evolve with the goal always to get a leg up on the competition.

In addition to the traditional Thai wax creations there is also an international wax carving competition associated with the Ubon Candle Festival.  Artists from Spain, China, Germany, Japan, Poland, as well as some other countries that I can not remember submitted works of "wax art".  I don't remember all of the submittals because, to be frank, they paled in comparison to any of the Thai works.  One piece of "art" was a bull carved from wax.  The bull shape was created from a series of large flat surfaces akin to shaping the wax with a snow shovel.  Without too much hyperbole I believe that with a little effort I could create a similar wax sculpture.  Another international entry was a basic rectangular tower with some surface texture carved into it and a round ball atop the tower.  It would not be unrealistic to contemplate that with some training i.e. 2 to 4 weeks I could produce a similar work.  As for the Thai wax works, there is no way no matter how much time or training I received that I could even approach the beauty, complexity, or intricacies of their art. To me comparing the the international works to the Thai works would be like comparing or rather trying to compare sculpture by Michelangelo to a brick wall.  The winning international competition entry was a Panda from China.  It was interesting bordering perhaps on "cute" but hardly jaw dropping or inspiring.

International competition winner from China - "Panda"
Thai wax carving - Ubon Ratchathani

The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival now includes entertainment such as dancing, traditional Lao Loum music and singing competition.  With this being Isaan, there were all kinds of booths as well as stalls to purchase food and soft drinks.

The Candle Festival actually started on June 28 with the international artists commencing to create their works.  From July 1 to July 31 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there were cultural performances.  During the last two weeks of the Festival, people can view demonstrations of local silk weaving as well as watch the large wax floats being built and carved.

Our visit this year was limited to the Asarnha Puja Day and Wan Kao Pansa events.  We scheduled our arrival on Monday 26, 2010 so that we could witness the ceremony "ceremony of inviting the candle of Royal watercourse and king loin cloth (Phaarbnamfom cloth)" starting at 15:30 to 17:00 followed by the Bai Srii ritual and "celebrating the King candle".  After lunch at our hotel we inquired about the location of the various ceremonies and were told that they were about 1-1/2 to 2 kilometers away.  In America we have a saying about things being a "country mile away".  The implication is that out in the country distances are not accurate and one mile could very well be more like 3 or 4 miles away.  This must also be true here in Isaan.  We set off for what was supposed to be only a 1 to 1-1/2 mile walk to the festival site.  After quite a ways walking along on the typical urban Thai sidewalks, uneven, broken pavement, various tripping hazards and obstructions, we asked for directions from a local shop keeper.  She informed us that it was another 2.5 kilometers away.  That decided the issue.  We were going to take a Tuk-Tuk the rest of the way.  My camera backpack was filled with two digital cameras, a flash, spare batteries, rain gear, and an umbrella which made it about 12 kilos (25 pounds).  My shoulders were aching.  We flagged down a Tuk-Tuk and for 60 baht ($1.80) he took us though 4 police traffic barricades to deliver us exactly at the Festival site.

The Festival was concentrated at two locations, Ubon National Museum and Wat Sriubonrattanaram, which are fortunately across the street from each other.  By chance or fortune we ended up at the Ubon National Museum.  It was here that the international wax sculptures were on display, along with a small performing stage as well as numerous refreshment stalls.  After wandering around for awhile we gravitated towards the performing stage area.  There was a competition going on.  Young girls from 5 years old to around 14 years old were each performing the same song.  The song is a very upbeat about spicy pappaya salad, "Pauk Pauk" (Lao) or "Som Tom" (Thai), which along with sticky rice is a staple of the Isaan diet.  The song is an invitation to passing people to come buy and eat the girl's very tasty food.  It is a sort of "Hee Haw" type of song and dance routine.  It is not sophisticated but it is definitely very entertaining.

We stayed at the competition from contestants number nine to the last contestant number 26.  We heard the same song 18 times - no it was actually 19 times.  Before the winners were announced, the young woman who actually recorded and made the song popular came out and sang the song.  She may have been twenty-two years old but came out wearing a schoolgirl's short plaid skirt, knee socks, and high heel boots.  The schoolgirl theme or perhaps "fantasy" is very popular in Isaan.  Just as the competition ended, the rain started.  This is the rainy season and it rained both days during our stay.  However it was not much of an issue since we are accustomed to being wet, we brought rain gear, and the rains never last very long.  The longest rain lasted about 30 minutes and the shortest shower was about one minute - almost like a bucket of water being drained from above.  At first I thought it was man made and part of the night procession light and sound show.  We found shelter from the rain where soft drinks were being sold.  It was a good time to refresh ourselves and to relax.

After the rain shower we went out to the street between the two sites.  This is where the procession was being held.  On one side of the street there was a very formal grandstand complete with leather sofas, metal chairs, beverage service and all the amenities that one would expect for dignitaries.  Across from the grandstand were bleachers that ran out of sight.  There were some signs indicating section and row numbers.  Since it was around 5:00 P.M. with the event scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. the bleachers were empty.  Duang brought me over to the bleacher section directly across from the center of the grandstand that had a canopy over it using scaffolding along with tarps.  I protested to my wife that we had to pay money and have a ticket to sit there.  She assured me that it was free.  She confirmed it with another person sitting in the area.  We climbed the bleachers up to the very top where I could stand to take photographs without blocking any one's view.  We sat there watching the preparations for televising as well as staging the show.  A fire truck came along and washed down the street which I thought was rather odd.  Later it all made perfect sense.  The dancers walked barefoot along the street.  As part of the performance, some of the dancers supplicated themselves on the street.  The intent of the washing was to remove any debris that could harm the performers.

The show was extremely entertaining.  It was a merit making ritual as well as a light/sound show.  Prior to the start of the show some men came along and passed out yellow candles to all the spectators in the vicinity of the grandstand.  Some boys set out a series of white tea candles on the street forming a lit pathway from the road through the gate of the Wat behind our location.  As part of the merit making ritual, dignitaries and performers carried lighted candles as well as offerings along the parade route  into the Wat circling the grounds three times.  The entire event was on national television.  We got a phone call from home that our 15 month old grandson, Peelwat was enjoying the event on television.  However every time that he saw a falang (foreigner) he would point at the TV and say "Nee Nee" ("here here" in Lao) indicating that he thought that he saw me in the crowd.  I guess it may also be true that all us foreigners look alike - at least to a 15 month old!

There were intermittent showers but they did not affect the performers at all.  We were dry underneath our canopy and we remained quite comfortable all evening.  Part of the show involved dancers dressed in traditional Thai minority costumes performing folk dances to traditional music in simulated fog.  It was very impressive.  I am constantly amazed as well as taken aback at the beauty, grace and poise of Isaan women.  In the Isaan culture beauty is highly valued, regarded, and sort.  The dancing reflects the culture of the people.  Another impressive sight at all these events in Isaan is the participation of families.  It is quite common to see three and four generations of a family watching these events and rituals.  Babies and toddlers are introduced to their culture and heritage at a very early age.  The people of Isaan are proud of their heritage and are taking steps to ensure that their culture is passed on to future generations.

Most of the performers were high school and university students.  A vast majority of the performers were female, followed by Ladyboys, and only a few males.  It seemed a little curious to have high school boys dressed up and acting like women but here in Thailand it is a common sight.  No one pays it much attention and such behavior is tolerated here.  Some of the "Ladyboys" are not very proficient and are not fooling anyone.  You will often see them at the back of the dance troupe as it passes.

A big part of the evening was  the procession of the large floats that communities created for the festival and merit making.  The biggest float and most elaborate float was commissioned by His Royal Highness the King.  It was grand and jaw dropping.  Most of the floats contained mythological creatures from the Himmapan Forest as described in the classical Thai literary masterpiece "The Ramakien".  One creature is the Garuda - a hawk like creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.  Another is Erawan - a three headed elephant. Thai mythology involves an amalgam of Hindu as well as Buddhist myths, legends, and creatures.  During the Candle Festival these are brought forth in wax carvings.  The combination of these creatures, the dancing, the music, and the lights makes for an unforgetable experience.  It was another reminder of why I enjoy living here in Isaan so much.  It is exciting, unique, and invigorating.

After nine hours away from our room, we returned to our hotel at 10:30 P.M. exhausted but eagerly anticipating the next day's events.


  1. Thanks for the great description as well as the photos. What hotel did you stay at?

  2. We stayed at Pathumrat Hotel. I would not recommend it. It needs maintenance, cleaning, as well as renovation. On the good side - it was quiet even when it was filled on the night of 26 July. Next year we will make reservations earlier and have a better selection of hotels.

  3. Yes, I have never heard any good things about that hotel, plenty better ones to chose from across the city. Glad to hear that you will be back again next year!

  4. It sounds certainly worth attending, i'll pencil it in for next year!
    Good reporting, and pleased to read about the background.



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